Small-town fair

April 30, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Perth, Ontario is probably one of the province’s prettiest towns. Not surprisingly, given its name, Perth was settled by Scottish settlers in the 19th century, and it has some wonderful old stone buildings. The little Tay River runs through the town, and through a picturesque green Stewart Park where broad willow trees cling to its banks.

I happened to pass through Perth last weekend, not knowing until I got downtown that my visit coincided with Perth’s Festival of the Maples. It was a nice day and I had a brand new camera lens I was eager to try out, so I strolled around the festival taking pictures.

Small-town fairs are a great subject for photography. Most people are having fun, and so they aren’t usually bothered by the presence of a camera. And they are doing interesting things. When I worked for small-town newspapers several decades ago, I used to enjoy shooting off several rolls of film at the various fairs and festivals.

Being unfamiliar with my lens, I decided not to ask people to pose this time, and instead shot some of the non-human elements that told the story of the Festival of the Maples. Here are a few shots.

Goat kid in petting zoo

Goat kid in petting zoo

Grilling sausages

Grilling sausages

Duck pond at the fair

Duck pond at the fair

Young people, Chinatown and a lighting experiment

April 11, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Last weekend I was shooting pictures of the lights and buildings in Montreal’s Chinatown at night. A group of young people saw my camera and tripod and asked me to take their pictures.

It’s been a while since I’ve done much people photography in anything other than fairly conventional lighting. And all I had was the pop-up flash on my Nikon D300, and the tripod. No external flash and no reflectors, etc. When trying a new technique or one you haven’t used in a while, it often takes a bit of experimenting to get it right.

At first I just shot the group with the pop-up flash and a normal flash setting. They arranged themselves in a pose, and I was mainly concerned about how the lighting would look. The result was OK, but the background was very dark, and the light on the kids was harsh. It had a snapshot look.

Group of young people, Chinatown, Montreal

Young people shot with pop-up flash and regular setting

I immediately realized that if I wanted to soften the light on them and bring in more details from the background, I would need to try something else — like a slow-sync flash setting.

A regular flash shot uses a fast shutter speed just long enough to allow the flash to completely light the subject. Slow sync, on the other hand, fires the flash, but the shutter stays open in order to properly expose the background and other areas that aren’t lit by the flash. It’s like two exposures in one — a quick exposure with the flash, and a longer exposure for the background similar to what you’d get if you just took a long exposure without the flash.

The problem was that I didn’t know just how long the exposure would take. And the kids, after seeing the flash go off, assumed the picture was finished, and they moved away. The result was a strange, but interesting ghosting effect.

Young people in Chinatown, slow sync and ghosting

In this shot I used a slow-sync flash, but the kids moved before the exposure was finished.

In the result above, the boy in the front has stayed relatively still. The flash records the features of the others sharply, but then as they move or leave, there is a blurring and ghosting effect as the slow shutter continues exposing for a few seconds without the flash.

So I tried again.

Young people, slow-sync flash 2

Another attempt with slow-sync flash.

Here they held still for longer, but still didn’t quite wait for the camera to finish exposing after the flash went off. I was communicating with them in a mix of English and French, and realized I had to be more clear that not only should they not move, but they should hold the pose until I indicated the shot was finished. I tried again with the whole group.

Young people in Chinatown, another slow sync

Trying again, but asking them to stay still.

They tried to stay still for this one, but to get a group of nine excited young people to stay absolutely still for several seconds just wasn’t going to work, no matter how hard they tried. So I tried again with just three of the boys, again emphasizing that they had to remain absolutely still.

Young people, Chinatown, Montreal

Slow sync with the kids not moving.

I liked the result of this one the best of the series, even though some of the ghosting ones had an interesting effect. The slow sync brought out the lighting of the background and softened the light on the kids. There’s still some ghosting of people moving by, but they are in the background and so less distracting.

It gives me more to experiment with next time. In hindsight, I should have taken more time and tried a few different apertures and shutter speeds to vary the ratio of the exposure time with and without the flash. I’d also like to try it with an external flash and perhaps a reflector. Finally, I should have spent more time choosing the right background, and working with the kids to get the best poses.

Easter in Montreal

April 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

I spent a few days over the warm, sunny Easter weekend in Montreal. It’s only two hours from Ottawa, but I only seem to get down there a couple times each year. And it’s a world away.

As Canada’s capital, Ottawa has a lot to offer, but compared to Montreal, Ottawa is very bland. If Ottawa is white Wonder Bread, Montreal is pumpernickle. Its streets teem with life and a mixing of languages and cultures. Depending on where you are, you’ll often hear conversations in English, French, Spanish, Italian and Haitian Creole all within a space of minutes. Each neighbourhood has its own ethnic and cultural character.

Montreal is loud, but refined. Its architecture covers many eras from the 17th century to the very modern, but most buildings have a strong sense of design. There’s timeless art in the Métro (subway) and on the streets. Fine dining is everywhere. Montrealers love good food.

I stayed on Sherbrooke near McGill University, the main English-language university, and walked or took the Métro to various points in the city. I tend to go back to favourite areas because they are always different according to the time of year and time of day.

With early summer-like weather, the Latin Quarter near the Université du Québec à Montréal was buzzing with activity in the sidewalk bars and cafés. I took a sequence of tripod photos as night descended on this hive of activity.

On a Saturday morning, the market at Jean Talon on the edge of Little Italy is a popular place, though it’s still relatively quiet at this time of year before all the fresh local produce comes in. The fruit, vegetables and busy shoppers and vendors all add lots of colour.

The narrow cobbled streets of Old Montreal are best visited early on a Sunday morning before they fill up with cars. With only the occasional pedestrian, it’s easy to walk among the centuries-old buildings and imagine you are in another era, or even on another continent. Later in the day, the area is dominated by traffic jams and tourist kitsch.

Invariably there are disappointments as some landmarks are torn up for construction. Last time I was in Montreal, the old fire station at Place d’Youville (now a museum) was covered in scaffolding. It’s now complete and looking good as ever. This time, Place d’Armes in front of Notre-Dame Basilica is completely torn up and closed off with hoarding. But it just means the city is renewing. Unlike many other North American cities, Montreal values its heritage buildings.

I walked from Ile Sainte-Hélène, site of the former Expo ’67, back to downtown Montreal across the immense steel structure of Pont Jacques Cartier, one of a few bridges across the St. Lawrence River. Little remains of Expo, which I visited as a kid, except the geodesic dome of what was once the U.S. pavillion. It was covered in plexiglass, but after that burned in a fire, all that’s left is the metal frame. It’s now the Biosphère, a museum of the environment. Once the site of a massive international fair, the rest of the island is mostly tree-covered hills with views of the downtown.

Walking back over the bridge, the blisters on my feet grew bigger and walking became difficult. But Montreal is such a great walking city, it’s a small price to pay.

Sun over the Biosphere, Montreal

The Biosphère, former U.S. Pavillion at Expo ’67.

Montreal’s Latin Quarter

April 8, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Rue Saint-Denis, Latin Quarter, Montreal

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